A family-owned daily newspaper serving Riverton, Lander and Fremont County, Wyoming since 1949

Beetles that catch lightning

Jun 16, 2017 - By Robert H. Peck

Fireflies are beetles. I always thought they were, well, flies, or something fly-like.

No, they have shell-looking backs when perched on something, and their bodies are long and flat.

The light-emitting organ is in the firefly's tail. It is not the whole body, as I had thought it was. What was I thinking? They blink on and off quickly, rather than sustaining their light. I guess that makes sense -- it's probably a waste of energy to be lit up all the time. That's another point I was wrong about, though, even if I do blame movies and photographs for showing me fireflies lit up all the time.

I am living with fireflies in my back yard here in the Iowa summer, a humid affair complete with this and every other imaginable species of flying insect and many species whose claims to insectdom are dubious at best. Insects have six legs, right? Some of these seem to have three, or eleven, or six legs and a couple of noses that can also function as legs in a pinch.

No flying spiders yet, thank goodness, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time.

But the fireflies, they are the best. It's cliche to like fireflies, to have a first experience with fireflies. Everyone has had something like that sometime, right? Some uncle from humid lands taking little Jimmy out back to see his first lightning bug. They are great, though, so I can see why that narrative persists.

Like holiday lights bobbing along the back hedge. Fireflies appear in the wrong season. If they were winter bugs, they'd be part of our Christmas stories.

For all the wonderful wildlife we uniquely have in Wyoming, there are many things we miss out on. Fireflies are a big one. So are red cardinals and their silly voices. The state bird of seven states, the cardinal, and we don't get any.

Possums live in town around here. They might well in Wyoming, too, for all I know, but I see them all the time in Iowa, just in the road or on the porch or slinking around the back of a classroom building.

Is the relative dearth of possum sightings a loss for the Equality State? Questionably not, but they sure gave me a fright when I saw one for the first time. I might have been prepared in childhood for this. That is a loss.

All of these animals are somehow part of a national identity for many Americans. Bright red birds, nightlight bugs, mischievous mammals that we will never know unless we leave home long enough to see them. It's a loss that I confess I really do feel.

But we one-up them with our mountains, our forests and our national parks. These things must be our fireflies, storied elements that form coming-of-age-narratives in the hearts of many artists.

Unique to us, and probably better than the bugs.

Editor's note: Riverton native Robert H. Peck is a graduate student in the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa.

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